Listening to Duncan Jones as he talks about Source Code, his fast-paced, cerebral thriller, it’s striking how comfortable the 39-year-old British director is with the heady ideas that inform the best science fiction films. The context in which he made his second film was radically different from his debut feature, the Dhs18 million space oddity Moon, but the same challenging thoughts about time and identity inform both.
Moon was an indie labour of love starring only Sam Rockwell (twice) and Kevin Spacey’s voice; Source Code, while not a full-blown Hollywood studio film, is a sci-fi-inflected thriller produced by Mark Gordon (2012, The Day After Tomorrow) and starring Jake Gyllenhaal, Michelle Monaghan and Vera Farmiga.
‘There’s obviously a huge difference between making a small indie and directing a film with so much more money at stake,’ says Jones, who graduated from the London Film School after studying philosophy in the US. His dad, of course, is David Bowie (who called his son Zowie Bowie for a while), and Jones spent a lot of time when promoting Moon fielding questions about his famous father.
He now realises that he’s gone up a gear very quickly in the world of filmmaking. ‘My analogy would be that it’s like the difference between driving a motor boat and captaining an oil tanker. But not having written the [Source Code] screenplay myself, and having come on board when the project was all ready to go, I was able to look at it objectively and say, this works great, this I’m not so sure about and these are the things we can improve. So my opinion was completely unbiased because, at least at that early stage, I had nothing invested in it.’
It was Jake Gyllenhaal, an admirer of Moon, who suggested that producer Mark Gordon should bring Jones on board. Jones admits to being reluctant to take on another science-fiction film, but he was won over by the potential of Ben Ripley’s fast-paced, non-linear screenplay. Army helicopter pilot Captain Colter Stevens (Gyllenhaal) wakes up on a train bound for Chicago. He is sitting opposite Christina (Monaghan), a friendly woman who seems to know him, but has no idea of how he got there. Confused and disoriented, he stumbles into the bathroom, where the face he sees in the mirror is not his own. Suddenly, there is an explosion and he is catapulted back to a ‘pod’ that resembles the interior of a crashed helicopter. Through video screen conversations with a ‘minder’ (Farmiga), Colter learns that he is participating in a secret military project that allows him to project himself into a parallel reality, but only for eight minutes at a time.
Jones is something of a science fiction geek – an ad he made for a disposable Kodak camera was a pastiche of the noodle bar street scene in Blade Runner – and so he had no real problem with this timeshift premise. He did, however, feel that it needed a little lightening up. ‘To wrap your head around the conceit behind Ben Ripley’s script takes some doing. But I thought that if it was taken too seriously, and we dedicated too much time to the science, it would detract from the film’s rip-roaring ride. So the rewriting I did was mostly to do with the tone. My suggestion to Ben was to try to inject some romance and humour, and to see if we could persuade the audience to just jump on board with the technology.’
As with Moon, Jones’s clever direction of Source Code makes a virtue of necessity, by transforming potentially dull interiors into spaces charged with emotion. To pick just one example, because Colter is only able to enter his parallel reality for eight minutes at a time, we see several Groundhog Day-style versions of the scene in which he and Christina first meet on the train. ‘I broke down those repeated sections, and tried to ensure that each one was as visually distinct from the others as possible,’ he explains. ‘One of the reasons we didn’t film on a real train was that we had to be able to break out walls and get a variety of angles on the action. This meant that whenever something new happened, the audience was seeing an environment that looked quite different.’
Jones says he’s in talks to make a third sci-fi movie, but that doesn’t mean he wouldn’t like to try his hand with other material. ‘After the next film, I hope to take a little bit of a genre sabbatical. I’m known for sci-fi, but I’m also known for being story-driven. So hopefully that same audience will be interested in seeing how I tackle other kinds of films.’
Neither does this hankering for new genres mean that he thinks that cerebral sci-fi is in bad shape. ‘I agree with Gareth Edwards [director of Monsters], who said recently that we’re reaching a point now where effects are so prevalent and so good that audiences have seen everything. So they’re coming back to sci-fi for the stories it can tell and the intriguing philosophical hypotheticals that it can pose.’ Source Code is in UAE cinemas now.